Monday, August 15, 2011

The Legacy of Racism

Ronald and I went to see The Help on Saturday. The theater was full, people still looking for seats as the previews played on screen. The audience was diverse, young and old, black and white, male and female, all packed tightly into seats.
I didn’t start crying until maybe twenty minutes into the movie. It was so well done; the actors were amazing. But the subject matter was too painful for my sensitive soul. Ronald held my hand and glanced at me throughout the movie, checking on me, squeezing my hand to remind me he was there.
At the end of the movie the audience broke out in applause. I wanted to clap, too. I wanted to acknowledge how well this film told its story. I wanted to celebrate the hopeful ending, but I was unable to move. I had to concentrate to prevent the bawling that pushed from within me from escaping and ruining everyone’s good time. I wiped my nose with the back of my hand and patted the tears from under my eyes. Ronald held my hand as we exited the theater.
As we walked toward the car, dusk settling humid and gray all around us, I said, “It’s going to take me a long time to get over that movie. How can people hate so much?”
“I know it still feels new to you,” he said.
I feel like it’s been my whole life, but it still hurts too much and sometimes it spills over and I can’t stop how it makes me feel.
“I had a lot of relatives who were maids,” he said, trying to pull me away from my sadness, but acknowledging it, too. “You know Mama Mack ironed. She was proud to talk about one lawyer who refused to let anyone else iron his white shirts.”
“I remember,” I said, my tears pushing at me again. I think about all the work that needed to be done, the children who needed to be raised, and the other children who were afterthoughts of most employers. They had mothers who loved them, and were scared for them, and sometimes watched them die because of hatred.
I am sad for my husband who aspired to so much and felt so little when he arrived because so many did not want to see him succeed. I feel sorrow for my daughters who work hard, who embody creativity, energy and action, but who have the mantle of race hanging over them.
I am sad for this country, for the people, who think that racism is gone, who think we live in a post-racial society when a man was beaten, run over and killed just this past month for being black. I feel sad for those who know it still exists but no one wants to talk about it. Why can’t we have an honest conversation about race? Why is it hidden in our speech and our actions and our values? Americans want to forget, or they don’t want to change, or they have no idea.
But we can’t change until we acknowledge racism. We can never become the post-racial society we aspire to until we have an honest conversation. We will not rise to become our best selves, to live the values we espouse. Until each one of us realizes his own role in perpetuating this burden, this legacy, this history, this underlying current that is strong and damaging, in our culture, we cannot stop it. It might look different but it will still exist. I will cry for a long time to come.

(Following is an excerpt from Chapter 2 Bloody Mick, Shades of Tolerance: A Biracial Love Story)
Our twin daughters, Cara and Mackenzie, were just two years old, and they were two of just three toddlers in our apartment complex.  Most of the other tenants were young, childless professionals and could not abide hearing toddlers running in stiff, hard soled shoes back and forth across the floor or crying after toppling over or because they were tired or hungry. Tenants slipped notes under our door asking us to keep our children quiet. Our landlord kept asking when we were moving. Ronald and I decided it was time to look for a house.
Our first realtor only showed us houses in the “black middle class” neighborhood on the eastside of Syracuse. He said we probably could not afford a house in the neighborhood called Outer Comstock, abutting our apartment complex. He was a pleasant, middle-aged white man who always wore a gray and blue plaid jacket and gray tie. We finally put an offer on a house in the eastside black neighborhood. We did not hear from the realtor for two days, but when he called us, he said he held the offer while he asked a banking associate to check on our credit. We pre-qualified for a mortgage, but the two-day delay caused us to lose the house to an earlier bidder. We dropped that realtor and picked a new one. He showed us a house with a cracked foundation, also located in the “black middle class” neighborhood, and told us we were expecting too much when we declined to make an offer.
The third realtor we selected was willing to show us houses in the Outer Comstock area, a neighborhood where many Syracuse University staff and faculty lived. We chose a lovely, neat and well-kept ranch house just three blocks from our apartment. The realtor called to tell us the seller had accepted our offer. Just minutes later he called back to tell us that the listing agent had told the seller we were “a young interracial couple with two children” and the seller did not want to sell the house to blacks. She said she could not do that to the neighbors because the values of their houses would decrease. She cited the way blacks lived on the south side of the city, the ghetto, in rundown houses with trash on the lawns. Even though she had signed the purchase agreement, she said she would not honor it.
Our realtor was outraged, and we were shocked. We called our attorney who said he would cite breach of contract. Our realtor called me a couple of weeks later at the university library where I worked and said the house was being shown to other potential buyers even though we had a signed purchase agreement. I left work and walked the mile and a half to the New York State Human Rights Division. A human rights officer filled out a questionnaire, then called Ronald and invited him down to the office. The officer transcribed our responses. Within a few hours, we had filed a housing discrimination complaint. Human Rights went to court the next day to place a lien against the house to ensure it could not be sold. It would take five months of meetings, interviews, letters, and, finally, a court date was scheduled to determine a cash settlement because the discrimination charges were founded in our favor. We agreed to settle out of court for just the right to buy the house and to keep an original clause in the contract that said the seller would pay $1500 in points at the closing.
We called the realtor to let us do a final walk-through before the closing. We had Cara and Mackenzie with us, Ronald holding Cara, Mackenzie in my arms.
“I still love it,” I said to Ronald. I had been worried because so many months had passed, and I could barely remember what it looked like.
“I’m going to pull the carpets up,” he said. “I like the hardwoods underneath.”
Our realtor stood by the front door as we wandered from room to room, still carrying the girls. It was not our house yet. As we walked back up the cellar steps, we heard someone come in the front door. It was the seller.
“What are you doing here?” she demanded. She was a tiny, older, Italian-American woman with dyed blond hair, a harsh expression, and large, manicured hands with gem-stoned rings. A bearish man stood next to her with his hands dug deeply into his pants pockets.
“The Hagans are here to do a final walk-through,” the realtor said.
“We’re not closing yet,” she said. Ronald and I were silent, each of us clinging to the child in our arms. We had heard about this woman, but had never seen or met her because her lawyer represented her at the many discrimination claim meetings. She was the executor of her sister-in-law’s estate. The sale of this house was one of her duties. She was also responsible for selling the contents of the house: furniture, linens, and kitchen items. I had spoken to an estate sales company to see when the sale had been scheduled, but the man I spoke to on the phone told me his company, though initially chosen to conduct the sale, had been fired.
“She found out I’m gay,” he said.
“We have to close by October 20th,” Ronald said. “Our mortgage offer is due to expire.”
“Well, I don’t know what you are doing here. I can’t sell until the estate sale is done. It’s too bad if it expires.”
“I heard you are a firefighter,” her friend said.
“Yes, I am,” Ronald said.
“I know Chief Hanlon very well,” he said. “I can ask him about you.”
“Go ahead,” Ronald said.
“I’m calling my attorney if you don’t leave now,” the seller said. “The neighbors called and told me you were here.”
“We’ll talk to our attorney,” Ronald said. “We have a right to do a final walk-through.” I stood beside him, scared and angry at the same time. I hated that she did not want us in the house. I hated that she did not care that our two-year-olds were in our arms, and that she spoke in an angry, hate-filled voice in front of them. I wondered how she would feel if someone spoke that way in front of her grandchildren.
“Let’s go, Dianne,” Ronald said. “Tell Chief Hanlon I said ‘hello.’” I followed him brushing by the owner and her friend. I held Mackenzie tightly to my chest.
“She’s got to let us close,” Ronald said as we each put a twin in her car seat.
“She hates everyone,” I said.
We closed on the house at 4:00 in the afternoon on the very day our mortgage offer expired at close of business. Had there been any problems at closing, we would have had to reapply for a new mortgage and start over.
The seller refused to pay the realtors’ commissions and sued our realtor for slander. The realtor called us and demanded we pay him his commission because he had been honest and told us why the seller did not want to sell to us. We told him we could not afford to pay his commission and wished him luck in getting it from the seller. He continued to call us for several months. He even stopped by the house one day.
“You don’t know how this whole situation has ruined me,” he said.
“We’re sorry. You need to get that seller to pay you,” I said. He countersued the seller and changed realty companies.
The Syracuse Herald published a story about the case and our settlement. Then the Fair Housing Commission invited me to tell our story at their training sessions for housing discrimination testers.
Some of our friends and family thought we should have looked for another house instead of fighting to buy this one. But Ronald and I thought no one should be denied housing or be forced to live in particular neighborhoods. We fought because we did not want Cara and Mackenzie to think they did not deserve to live in a nice house in a nice neighborhood because of the color of their skin. I remembered the black family who wanted to live on my street in Colonie but was driven away by signatures on a petition.
After we moved in I had nightmares of the house burning down around us, flames licking the edges of my sheets, black smoke preventing me from finding the girls, an act of retaliation: the seller and a man pouring gasoline around the foundation of the house, lighting it, both holding the same match, and standing in the backyard to watch the house burn. I would wake up screaming, in a cold sweat, wondering if it were real.  After a year or so, the nightmares dwindled and stopped.
The police stopped in front of our house on several occasions as Ronald worked in the yard, asking where the owner of the home was and if he was the gardener. Sometimes he had to show his driver’s license to prove it was his home.
One cop said, “I didn’t think any black people lived in this neighborhood.”
“They do now,” Ronald said, pushing in an aerator so the lawn would grow lush and green in the spring. And after we moved in, more black families bought houses in Outer Comstock.
We lived in the house for twenty-two years, not only because we loved it, but also because the thought of being discriminated against a second time ticked like an analog clock in the background.
The next house we bought was seven hundred miles away, down South – a place where I still see Confederate flags displayed on vehicle vanity plates or as window decals or on caps or vests. I went house hunting with just the realtor under the guise that Ronald was too busy to make the trip. I showed the house to Ronald via the Internet and put in a bid the next morning with just my signature. Ronald saw it in person an hour before closing during the final walk-through. We left no room for second thoughts.

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